Almost five years ago on an airplane, Mina Yoo drew a sketch of a carabiner. Then a new mother, she was frustrated that there was not enough space on the plane to store her belongings comfortably. The Qlipter (pronounced klip-ter), which has been dubbed the Swiss Army knife of carabiners, and its successor, the Qliplet (klip-let) have been sold through retailers all over the world including REI, Brookstone, Fireworks (more locally) and amazon.com as well as through her company Lulabop’s website.
Yoo is a woman of many hats: she is an entrepreneur, a mother, soon-to-be author, and a former professor at the University of Washington Foster School of Business. Yoo was born in Korea but grew up in Dubai, United Arab Emirates and Jakarta, Indonesia as her father worked in multi-national companies. She came to the United States to study sociology in college, then worked at a marketing and public relations startup company following graduation. Working at the startup company sparked her interest in small businesses and entrepreneurship.
Yoo received her PhD at the University of Michigan, where she studied Indian and Chinese immigrant entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley in the late 1990s and early 2000s. She was teaching full-time at the UW when she first started running a business with two partners.
“One thing I’ve realized is it’s hard to run a business part-time,” Yoo said. She has seen people who keep their full-time jobs to support their businesses but are unable to push their products very efficiently because their full-time jobs are so demanding.
“It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg thing,” she said.
When Yoo began working on her company Lulabop, she had an ambitious vision of launching with three different products: a traveling bag, a carabiner, and a piece of clothing. She realized that it was not as easy as she thought. It took her and her team two years of research and development until the finalized version of the Qlipter was finally born. The Qlipter is the first carabiner with a rotating, folding hook that can hold up to 50 pounds.
“There were starts and stops, and I made 500 mistakes. Finding the right people took a really long time,” Yoo said. “It’s a lot of work but it’s the most fun I’ve had professionally.”
The Qlipter was inspired by her own lifestyle as a parent, traveler, and hiker. Yoo strives for her products to be as multifaceted as she is. These days, she is often approached by people with ideas and factories that want her to sell their products through Lulabop. But Yoo is cautious.
“It is very important to me that we sell high quality goods that actually help people in their lives,” she said. “I feel like one of the benefits of having a small company is that you get to be a gatekeeper and do what you want.”
Yoo is realizing she needs to re-strategize and focus on more directed-consumer selling as well. This means that Lulabop’s margin will be greater and it will have more control over their products.
“One of three purchases takes place on Amazon. Our goal is rather than relying on these big box retailers who are closing everyday, we want to focus more on the consumers. Basically we’re gonna eat what we kill instead of relying on somebody else to sell our products,” she said.
A year after the Qlipter launched, its younger sibling the Qliplet entered the market. And Yoo has a long list of projects underway: an energy-harvesting product her team is just beginning to prototype and test; a bigger carabiner made of plastic to bring costs down; a traveling bag she plans to revisit in the next year; a board game she is working on with her 5-year-old son; and an invention book for mothers she is co-authoring with a friend.
Yoo gave her parents credit for encouraging her to think outside the box.
“I like to joke that people who come up with good ideas are people who complain a lot. If you think everything’s dandy, why improve on anything?” she said.
Editor’s note (5/30/16 at 4:46 p.m.): An updated version of this article was made to clarify details about Qlipter.
This article was written in partnership with CAPE Project, a forum connecting and engaging innovative entrepreneurs by sharing stories of their entrepreneurial journey. It’s a growing community of diverse entrepreneurs, mentors, and investors with connections to the Asia Pacific Rim community. CAPE Project is an initiative launched by Hing Hay Coworks, a program of the Seattle Chinatown-ID Preservation and Development Authority. The next event, “(Her)story: A Journey from Idea to Product,” on May 25 from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at Hing Hay Coworks features Robiis founder and CEO Adriana Moscatelli. For a schedule of events and for more information, visit capeproject.org.
CAPE Project is a forum connecting and engaging innovative entrepreneurs by sharing stories of their entrepreneurial journey. It’s a growing community of diverse entrepreneurs, mentors, and investors with connections to the Asia Pacific Rim community. CAPE Project is an initiative launched by Hing Hay Coworks, a program of the Seattle Chinatown-ID Preservation and Development Authority.